Editor’s note: Below, Matthew Arildsen and Hunter Baker offer suggestions for how Christians can live in our new totalitarian culture without compromise but also without leaving behind the work they love. To jump down to Baker’s article first, click here.
Cake-Baking and License-Signing Are Neutral Activities
The preposterous ruling in Obergefell has trampled the rights of free association and sought to impose secular ideological control on the public square. Morally, and according to the actual Constitution, marriage is between a man and a woman only. Just see the Supreme Court dissents. Morally, and according to the actual Constitution, people who perform services for the general public are within their rights to decline participation in ceremonies that violate their beliefs.
But what the Constitution says and what morality actually dictates is, for certain parties on the Supreme Court, quite beside the point. Consequently, public servants are being pressured to endorse the new morality. Business owners of faith are conflicted.
We’ve seen a variety of reactions to the new law, especially in the realm of clerks having to sign and issue marriage licenses. Some clerks with concerns have resolved that they can sign and issue the licenses. Other clerks have decided that they cannot, and will therefore quit their posts. A third group of clerks is simply disobeying the court order and not issuing the license.
In situations like these, it’s easy for the media and the thinking public to place the entire problem behind the mystery-curtain of individual conscience. That’s for good reason: Christian doctrine has long held that people should not violate their consciences.
But to end the discussion there is to cut it short, for Christian doctrine also requires that we shape our consciences by the Word of God. Our moral sentiments are not the ultimate authority, even when they have been generally reliable. We need to guard our hearts against the Satanic voices of the world, but keep our hearts open to the counsel of God. Consequently, there is more to say about which course of action should be pursued, even if all three courses of action were, in their individual cases, moral decisions.
How to Live in Pagan Society
It turns out that this situation is similar to some classic moral problems that Christians and other philosophers have been considering for some time now. If you’re a Nazi soldier, can you, in good conscience, fight the Allies? Would it be moral to kill Jews? At what point, if any, does “obeying orders” stop working as a valid excuse? On the other hand, do you have to starve and die to keep from being implicated in the Nazi atrocities through taxation?
Thankfully, an evil empire and moral purity were precisely the concerns of first-century Christians as they wrestled with living in extensively pagan societies with tyrannical militaries. One ethical conundrum of the day was: is it permissible to eat food sacrificed to idols? In 1 Corinthians 10:25-57, Paul lays out the righteous path: “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains. If one of the unbelievers invites you and you want to go, eat anything that is set before you without asking questions for conscience’ sake.”
Money spent on food sacrificed to idols ended up funding the pagan temple system one way or another. Paul is unfazed. Like Jesus insisting that we should give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and pay our taxes, Paul shows that the evil actions of the other participants do not preclude the narrowly righteous action of the Christian. The reasoning is, buying food is just buying food; buying food isn’t wrong; what people do with the money does not contribute to your sin.
Baking Cakes Isn’t Evil
This reasoning is useful for the Nazi example. Insofar as a soldier is politically naive and ignorant of the humanitarian crisis of the Holocaust, the soldier may rightly participate in fighting the Allies, so long as the soldier is only exercising the valid war powers he is given. This is known, in the relatively prevalent Just War tradition, as jus in bello. Mass killing of random civilians, rape of all kinds, and blatantly unnecessary destruction of civilian property are not permitted, even if a commanding officer orders it. But other matters are matters beyond the soldier’s discretion, and in those cases the moral test lies with the proper level in the chain of command.
So a Nazi soldier can fight the Allies, but he cannot kill Jews. The German who continues to labor in the general market and necessarily pays taxes to an evil regime is not guilty of the evil of that regime by paying taxes (he’s probably guilty of the regime’s evil if he supports the regime). Obeying orders stops working as a valid excuse as soon as the discrete act you are doing is unequivocally evil. This rule doesn’t mean that only the person who turns on the gas in the concentration camps is culpable. It does mean that the person who doesn’t know about the concentration camp, but unwittingly is balancing their books, is not culpable. Distinguishing between these situations requires empirical evidence.
The clarity of this logic helps us draw bright lines for Christian conduct in this less extreme but very important situation. Baking a cake is not evil. Telling someone that gay marriage is great is evil. Photographing a wedding is not evil. Implicitly endorsing public sin is evil. Signing a certificate as the government’s witness for the validity of the legal document saying two parties are married according to the state is not evil. Signing a certificate that certifies that all signatories endorse the government’s definition of marriage is evil.
So in the case of a cake for a gay wedding or being a witness on a slip of paper, it makes sense to analyze the act itself. It’s not wrong to give people a beautiful cake. It’s wrong to encourage people to do evil things. If you make your views and the company’s views clear, you can feel free to make that cake. If they want it to say “Congratulations Angela and Norma!” you may feel morally free to do as they wish. As long as they know that you are merely serving their own self-congratulations and are not participating in congratulating, your conscience can be clear.
Similarly, it is moral for a Christian clerk to issue the morally invalid marriage licenses that include gay marriages, as long as the state does not coerce the clerk into offering congratulations to the couple. Your function as a witness to the state and couple’s sin may be painful, but the angst of seeing neighbors fall deeper and deeper into sin should not be confused with the angst of personal moral guilt.
Christians Should Judge Christians
The whole affair is more deeply related to the (perennially misinterpreted) passage about Christian judgment. Here is 1 Corinthians 5:9-13: “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
Sin is sin, no matter what, and there is a judgment for those who sin and are not part of the church. But that judgment is up to God. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t advocate for righteous laws everywhere necessary, and that doesn’t mean Christians cannot make moral pronouncements in the public square. It does mean that if our extra-ecclesial institutions have moral failures, it is not our necessary individual duties to correct those failures. Non-Christian people intent on sinning, at some point, may be allowed to fail.
Christians have the moral right to refuse to provide services for gay weddings and other events, in part because it is necessary to preserve freedom of speech. This case should be taken to the highest court in the land because no one, of any faith, should have to choose between violating conscience and closing his business for the right to choose what moral visions he publicly expresses.
But, critically, those religious liberty and free speech realities do not mean that Christians necessarily sin when they bake gay wedding cakes or sign marriage certificates for gay couples. One can act in Christian righteousness and either deliver the wedding cake or sign the marriage certificate. We need to be very careful about what God requires and very specific about what political decisions must trigger Christian rebellion. It is getting bad and will likely get worse, but we are not at that breaking point yet.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice, and should not be construed as guaranteeing a successful legal ground for action. This is, instead, moral advice, and concerns how you should shape your conscience in accordance with Scripture. If you find yourself in this or a similar situation, I encourage you to both consider these arguments seriously and consult with your pastor and elders as you navigate the situation.
By Hunter Baker
Dear fellow Christians in the wedding trades,
I write first to let you know that I understand your plight. You have derived joy and satisfaction over the years by providing cakes, flowers, and photographs for couples getting married. In the rare circumstance that a same-sex couple came to your place of business, you simply politely declined and knew other providers would happily take the work.
Unfortunately for you, you happen to be trying to make a living during the exact tiny slice of the history of world civilization when gay marriage has become the laser focus of our culture (and especially of our cultural elites). In 2008, the current president shared your view. Now, he stands with the folks on the other side of the issue looking askance upon you and your convictions. Hillary Clinton also endorsed traditional marriage. She, too, takes a new view today. The really tough part is that everyone who has changed his or her opinion, which is a lot of people in just a short time-frame, seems to expect you to perform the mental flip, as well. They don’t want to hear your reasoned explanations about the biblical text or about how you will serve gay customers in any regard other than a wedding. They just want you to shut up and adopt the new consensus. Despite their constant complaints over the years about soulless corporations, they deny that your personal convictions and morality should have any application to the way you do business.
You would expect some solidarity from your fellow Christians, and many have chosen to stand with you and to try and protect you from having your faith and conscience trampled. But others have done everything they can to rationalize why you should get with the cultural program. They say Jesus would bake the cake or that you are simply wrong in thinking that you should abstain from same-sex wedding work. Somehow, they fail to understand that they are effectively establishing themselves as the equivalent of some kind of pope who infallibly interprets the faith for others. There must be more chairs at the Vatican than you think. I suspect the reality is that they are embarrassed by you. They are tired of looking out of step. It doesn’t help that here you are trying to be faithful. You’re preventing things from going more smoothly. What are you, some kind of fundamentalist?
At the same time, you are the perfect target for petty bureaucrats looking to make a mark, and for policymakers who would rather focus on anything other than balancing budgets, solving pension crises, improving schools, and other difficult and energy-draining tasks. Better to do something that might get a mention in the latest “Profiles in Courage” volume. And it really doesn’t cost anything. Well, it won’t cost the taxpayers. It will cost you, sure (maybe $135,000 or more), but you’re just a bigot!
The good news is that many people do care about your plight. They rally into crowdfunding opportunities and even find new ways to help when some fundraisers are hounded into dropping you by zealous opponents. But I doubt there is enough crowdfunding to protect all of you, especially if the witch-hunt attitude continues. These neo-Puritans in the service of a new kind of religious zeal probably occupy enough regulatory and judicial positions to generate extraordinary costs and punishments relative to the “offense” of which you have been or will be accused.
Some of you may already be looking to sell your business or are thinking about simply finishing the current lease and choosing a new occupation. Before you do, I would like to suggest an alternative. It doesn’t seem right to accept that one cannot be a baker, florist, or photographer unless you compromise convictions that were well-accepted and widely shared until about five minutes ago.
The easy way out is to simply stop doing weddings. But I think you can probably be a bit more subtle than that. The problem is that you believe it is wrong for you to participate in a same-sex wedding. Here’s an alternative to getting out of the wedding business. If you are a baker, no longer offer “wedding” cakes. It doesn’t mean you won’t make cakes that are suitable for weddings, but to you it will just be a cake and the client can use it in any way he or she likes. Since you are not offering it as a wedding cake, you can say with integrity that you are not selling a “wedding” cake for a same-sex ceremony. The same logic applies with regard to florists and photographers. Just stop marketing packages as wedding packages or offering wedding arrangements.
Perhaps this strategy seems a little too clever to you. Maybe that is the case, but I believe that if no one else cares about your conscience or integrity, then you are obliged to take steps of your own. This strategy may resonate with the biblical injunction to be “wise as a serpent and gentle as a dove.” Many of us in a variety of occupations may eventually be in need of such stratagems.
Of course, it would be far better if our fellow countrymen were to decide that conscience is important. Perhaps they could realize that Sweet Cakes not baking a wedding cake for a same sex wedding is hardly apartheid or Jim Crow at work. Maybe they could distinguish isolated objections based on conscience and faith from massive, formal, and systematic systems of oppression. Maybe they could come to that conclusion. But, in the meantime, I offer you my sympathy and my advice. Some people like throwing the book at you, you know? It’s tough when you’re up against someone with a little authority who enjoys his work.
With my prayers and friendship,
A fellow citizen (and brother) who shares your burden